Meaning matters, not modality

For years now, teachers have tried to tailor instruction for children who learn best by seeing, hearing or touching, writes Daniel Willingham in American Educator’s Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Teaching a child in his favored learning modality doesn’t improve learning, however.

What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality.

. . . For example, if students are to appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid, it would be much more effective to view a picture than to hear a verbal description.

Many topics may call for information in more than one modality. In a unit on the Civil War, in addition to lectures and reading, it might be appropriate to include recordings of martial music used to inspire the troops, visual representations (maps) of battlefields, and perhaps a chance to handle the pack and equipment the troops carried so that students could appreciate their heft. Similarly, if students are to learn the form of an English sonnet, they should hear the stress forms of iambic pentameter, and then see a visual representation of it.

The meaning is what matters, writes Willingham.

There is no benefit to students in teachers’ attempting to find auditory presentations of the Mayan pyramids for the students who have good auditory memory. Everyone should see the picture.

Yet modality theory — now in the version of “multiple intelligences” — is widely accepted even though “there is no research evidence to support it.”

Willingham is recommended by University of Wisconsin Math Professor Dick Askey on School Information System.

About Joanne


  1. Here’s the fly in the ointment:

    Kavale and Forness analyzed 39 studies using a technique called meta-analysis, which allows the combination of data from different studies. By combining many studies into a single statistical analysis, the researchers have greater power to detect a small effect, if one exists.

    While modality-aligned teaching (sigh) certainly has the feel of educrap about it proving it so with a controversial technique like meta-analysis is a poor way to go. A better way would be to find the supporting research, if any exists, and put it under a microscope. Maybe see if it’s replicable.

    Not that that approach would matter to the proponents of this rumor but with the reach of the Internet a good critique might arm the opponents of this particular vintage of educrap.

  2. This seems like an oversimplification. The place I’ve seen knowledge of one’s strongest modality help the most is when students try to study. Some of my students need to recopy their notes (kinesthetic) to remember their content. Others need to read them (visual). Others read them into tapes and listen to those tapes while driving or make up songs to remember things (Aural). I don’t care which mode they use to study as long as they learn the material and can pass their exams.

    Most lessons use a variety of modalities anyway – no one would show a picture of the Mayan pyramids without a narration. Many grade school students build models of things as part of their lessons. It all works together to help students learn and retain the material.

  3. I must admit, I’m a bit lost here – why do we care that people appreciate the appearance of a Mayan pyramid? Understanding the architectural and religious significance, sure, but appreciating the appearance? This sure seems a lot fluffier than social studies lessons were ten years ago.

  4. It’s perfectly obvious that some materials are best presented graphically, some textually. Research isn’t necessary to confirm that one picture of the Grand Canyon will convey what no amount of text ever will. Or that all the pictures of the Grand Canyon won’t substitute for a good essay about some aspect of the canyon.

    That’s not how learning modalities are portrayed. They’re presented as a means of structuring/engineering lessons and learning materials so that the apropriate presentation technique can be matched to the students favored learning modality. Learning efficiency is increased because the materials and instructor are not working at cross purposes to the students strongest learning mode, or so the story goes.

    Problem is, while the enthusiasm for the idea is there the engineering principles aren’t so there’s no way to tell which learning materials are structured according to such theory as exists about learning modalities and materials that aren’t so structured. Come to that, what exactly are the principles that would allow a textbook author or lesson designer to embody leaning modalities? Where would I view these guiding principles, design ideas, planning guides?

    That’s why I dismiss learning modality as educrap. When it finally occurs to you to go looking for it, there’s no there, there. Educrap.

  5. My students might get Shakespeare in three or four modalities (read it, hear it, watch it, act a scene out). It’s not rocket science, just plain old lesson planning.

    I don’t know why somebody would want to match lesson plans to only one learning style. All classes are a mishmash of learning styles, most of us function well using multiple styles, and students should be exposed to uncomfortable styles in order to stretch and shore up weaknesses. Ivory is right — the best use of knowing what your best modality is for studying.

    FWIW, I prefer Sternberg’s breakdown of styles to Gardner’s.

  6. The modality stuff comes I suspect via NLP, which I tap with great success in 1-2-1 counselling, but is one of those disciplines that might be called “intelligence and integrity-specific.” Garbage in, garbage out.

    There are indeed learners who do best with print first, or movement, or oral instruction, or a certain number of repetitions. Ideally, the individuals themselves are educated to supervise their learning with reference to these aspects. Probably not in the massed education establishment, on big feet, using big hammers.

    This is a subdivision of temperamental profiling so subtle and various it’s not rehearsable in teacher-training clumps, and probably has become educrap. In the hands it’s now in. There’s promise there, but it sounds like talking about a Lexus and selling four wheels and baling wire. Better to get out and walk, like we used to do.

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Kids learn better when you whack them with a pointer when they are wrong. Ask any Nun.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Funny, just covered this topic today in my master’s classes. Reallt, it all boils down to one guiding principle: variety in the classroom to engage students. One cannot teach to the preferred intelligence or modality of each student all the time – it would be a nightmare for planning and would probably cause more confusion among the class than understanding. Nor should a teacher allow students to learn in their favored modality. One of the basic concepts of multiple intelligences is that while students might be stronger in some areas, they do possess each intelligence. Allowing the student to be comfortable by only presenting material in their preferred modality denies the student’s chances for personal growth, which is a prime responsibility of the teacher.

  9. SuperSub wrote:

    Really, it all boils down to one guiding principle: variety in the classroom to engage students.

    That’s kind of the feeling I got about it although when I first ran up against learning modalities it was presented as an exciting new frontier. We were all going where no man had gone before, educationally. Sigh.

  10. Learning modalities are very real – just because there is no “research” to support it doesn’t mean there is no evidence to support it. In my high school math class, some kids learn better by taking notes, others learn better by just listening. I know that all kids should know how to take notes, but I am not going to force them to do it all my way! Also, most math classes were taught in “lecture” format when I was in school, and that works very well for kids who understand math like me. But for my husband and daughter (who I happened to have in my math class last year), it doesn’t work as well. So I vary the way I present things in my class, and I pay close attention to the method of explanation that works best for each student. When I work with them one-on-one, I try to re-explain in the way they best understand. And I have kids come back year after year saying that they never understood math until they took my class. You have to reach the kids in the way they learn best, and teaching the same way all the time, even for the kids who are trying to learn, will be disasterous for those who don’t learn the way you teach.

  11. I’m not sure about the validity of this “modality” stuff (or for that matter, Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”).

    I do know that it’s simple common sense to find out the strengths and natural talents of the students, and encourage them. Every good teacher does this, despite the system.

  12. BadaBing says:

    Screw Gardner and the horse he rode in on. There is nothing new under the sun in education. Gardner is a lot like Stephen Krashen and his lame-ass theory of second language acquisition, which was popularized and embraced by the female edubosses of TESOL a coupla decades or more ago. Krashen has a charisma (so they say) that wins the hearts and minds of female educrats. He’s basically nothing today.

    Snake-oil salesman Gardner comes along with his intelligences and the eduworld thinks he’s given them the keys to the kingdom. Gardner’s a good salesman, like Krashen before him, but is he offering anything revelatory or even new? Methinks not. It all boils down to common sense. In fact, adherence to the credo of modalities is often counter-productive, such as using graphic organizers instead of demanding that kids actually read the novel because they’re not “visual” learners. (Is reading visual? Not that I care.)

    My job is to liberate kids from being stuck in one modality, if you will. You’re visual? Fine. Today you’re going to be aural. Screw the jargon. Catering to students’ “modalities” rewards them for not developing other areas of their brain. “Pedro doesn’t read because reading’s not his learning mode.” Then Pedro’s come to the right class. My class. He’s going to get unstuck from harmful edubabble gobbledygook copouts for not reading. “Here’s your copy of A Separate Peace, Pedro. Read chapter one. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

  13. My job is to liberate kids from being stuck in one modality, if you will.

    If you are liberating them, what are you liberating them from? What is imprisoning them and holding them back in the first place?

    By modern standards, civilization-building geniuses such as Edison, Einstein, and Newton would be clinical monomaniacs, terribly stuck in one modality. Of course, they would also be considered “autistic”. Do they need liberating too?

  14. BadaBing says:

    First, what am I liberating them from? Read my post again. It’s up there.

    Second, I don’t see Edison, Einstein or Newton as “civilization-building geniuses.” What civilizations did they build? What modality were each of them stuck in, assuming there is such a thing as a modality.

    Third, what autistic symptoms did these three men exhibit?

  15. That’s it, make ’em read, BadaBing! I think teacher energy peaks in July :).

    SuperSub, I think it is Very Cute that you are starting to figure it out. Anyway, I hope your instructor covered Sternberg, who has done the research to back up his theories.

    Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, a twisting after the wind. There is nothing new under the sun. For us, it is all a twisting after the latest fad born of a dissertation or the edu-profiteers.

    Secret: 99% of what I do in the classroom requires only me, books, and a chalkboard. I used my overhead until it died for good. Most of the time I hardly use the chalkboard. Very little money to be made here (ever seen the margins in book publishing… nobody is making anything on those copies of Julius Caesar).